A Look Back at the Life and Work of Kurt Vonnegut

Neal Conan offers a personal essay on Kurt Vonnegut Jr., who died Wednesday in Manhattan at 84.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

…United Nation's building in New York. I approached him with my tape recorder and my microphone and was promptly struck dumb with awe. My best friend had loaned me a copy of "The Sirens of Titan" back in high school, and we reveled in all of his novels as they came out or as we discovered them in second-hand bookstores.

In some ways, I still like "The Sirens of Titan" the best. It's the one that made it easiest to argue that Vonnegut wrote science fiction, and of course that validated the field and my interested in it, but he sure didn't play the games of those steeped in the genre, and that was okay, too.

When "Slaughterhouse-Five" came out, I wrote about in the very obscure publication The Science Fiction Review. I gave it a five-star rave, as if my opinion made much difference. For what it's worth, it seemed to me that his best work ended with that novel and that something was lost after he lost his long struggle to write about the indescribable, the bombing and the subsequent firestorm he survived as a prisoner of war in Dresden.

But as amazing and as important as his earlier books are, there was a great deal more to Kurt Vonnegut's life. That day on the sidewalk outside the U.S. mission to the U.N., and inept young reporters struggled to find questions for the great man.

I wished I'd asked him the difference between the war he fought in Europe and the conflict in Vietnam. I wished I'd asked him to compare his experiences as a POW with the men being held in the Hanoi Hilton. I wished I'd asked him why he felt compelled to use a celebrity he despised to speak out against a war he despised even more.

If memory serves, what I did ask him was what he was doing. Committing suicide by cigarette, he replied, and then he kindly went on to explain why he was there that day and allow me to escape with the soundbite I needed.

I have to think that he'd be amused that, in the end, it wasn't the cigarettes or the alcohol or the depression he battled that killed him, and while I stopped reading his work some time ago - my loss - I never stopped listening. And I will revisit "The Sirens of Titan" when I get home this weekend.

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Novelist Vonnegut Remembered for His Black Humor

Kurt Vonnegut and his wife in 2006

Kurt Vonnegut and his wife, Jill Krementz, attending the opening night of What the Bleep!?: Down the Rabbit Hole at Biltmore Theatre on Feb. 2, 2006 in New York City. Thos Robinson/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Thos Robinson/Getty Images

Vonnegut Videos

In 2006, Kurt Vonnegut appeared in the virtual world of Second Life on public radio's 'The Infinite Mind' with John Hockenberry. Lichtenstein Creative Media hide caption

Watch the Video
itoggle caption Lichtenstein Creative Media
Kurt Vonnegut relaxes at a table with his wife, Jill Krementz, and daughter Lily, June 1987.

Kurt Vonnegut relaxes at a table with his wife, Jill Krementz, and daughter Lily, June 1987. Allen Ginsberg/Corbis hide caption

itoggle caption Allen Ginsberg/Corbis

Vonnegut in Private

Author John Irving and Kurt Vonnegut were longtime friends; Irving remembers Vonnegut's graciousness, his loyalty, and a comical interlude involving the Heimlich Maneuver.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., the acclaimed author of more than a dozen novels, short stories, essays and plays, died Wednesday in Manhattan. He was 84.

Vonnegut's most famous work was an iconic novel born out of his memories of war and its absurdities. Vonnegut's mother killed herself when he was a young man leaving to serve in World War II. As a private in that war, he was captured by the Germans and imprisoned in a former slaughterhouse in the ancient German city of Dresden. From there, he stepped out into the hellish, surreal landscape that Dresden became after it was firebombed.

"As prisoners of war... we dealt hands-on with dead Germans, digging them out of basements 'cause they'd suffocated there, and taking them to a huge funeral pyre," he told NPR in 2003. "And I heard — I didn't see it done — they finally gave up this procedure because it was too slow. And of course the city was starting to smell pretty bad. They sent in guys with flamethrowers."

It took him 25 years to turn that experience into Slaughterhouse-Five.

"You can't remember pure nonsense," Vonnegut said. "It was pure nonsense, the pointless destruction of that city, and, well, I just couldn't get it right. ... I kept writing crap, as they say."

Slaughterhouse-Five, filled with the blackest of black humor, was finally published in 1969 — and became an instant best-seller. Vonnegut said he saw the book's publication as a kind of liberation.

"I think it had not only freed me, I think it freed writers," he said, "because the Vietnam War made our leadership and our motives so scruffy and essentially stupid, that we could finally talk about something bad that we did to the worst people imaginable, the Nazis. And what I saw, what I had to report, made war look so ugly. You know, the truth can be really powerful stuff."

Vonnegut was a committed humanist and an outraged critic of the war in Iraq. On the lecture circuit in the years before his death, he delivered gentle and gnomic lessons: He told students that teaching is friendship, and told artists that their antiwar protests had the power of a banana cream pie. Vonnegut also asked people to notice when they feel happy.

In 1999, Vonnegut told NPR that he wrote everything for one specific reader: his sister Allie, who died of cancer in her 30s.

"It's just trusting the taste of someone else," he said. "I mean, it could easily be a teacher... but that is the secret of artistic unity, I think, even when painting a picture or composing music, is to do it with one person in mind. I don't think you can open a window and make love to the whole world."

John Irving, best known for his novel The World According to Garp, studied creative writing under Vonnegut.

"The only critical thing he ever said to me... was about my fondness for semicolons, which Kurt himself despised," Irving remembered. "He called them hermaphrodites."

Vonnegut scholar Jerome Klinkowitz said the author's work is filled with inept, foolish characters, but that cheap shots were not his style.

"He did plenty of outrageous works," Klinkowitz said. "But he never wanted his work to be hurtful. There's no villains in any of his novels."

Another fellow author, Gore Vidal, agreed: "He was a witty writer. He was a very good science-fiction writer, which meant that he could deal rather safely in satire at the times in the '50s when other people didn't really dare."

Indeed, Vonnegut approached the darkest subjects with humor, which was also the way he described his own life. He was a longtime smoker who once explained the habit by calling it a "fairly sure, fairly honorable form of suicide." In Vonnegut's case, it never quite took: He lived into his ninth decade, and died of complications from a fall.

Vonnegut's last work was a collection of essays called A Man Without a Country. In it, he suggested that music helped him through tragic times.

"Why this is so, I don't know," he said in a 2005 NPR interview. "Or what music is, I don't know. But it helps me so. During the Great Depression in Indianapolis, when I was in high school, I would go to jazz joints and listen to black guys playing, and, man, they could really do it. And I was really teared up. Still the case now."

Though he was a vocal religious skeptic, Vonnegut wrote in that final essay collection that "if I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph: 'The only proof he needed for the existence of God was music.'"

Vonnegut's other novels include Player Piano, Cat's Cradle, Breakfast of Champions, Mother Night and The Sirens of Titan. The author, who had homes in Manhattan and the Hamptons in New York, adopted his sister's three young children after she died. He also had three children of his own with his first wife, Ann Cox, and later adopted a daughter, Lily, with his second wife, the noted photographer Jill Krementz.

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